The two big superhero films of May, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, are set in separate cinematic versions of the Marvel Comics universe, Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and Fox’s X-Men universe. What the two franchises have in common (other than alternate versions of two overlapping characters, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) are foundational roles in the modern era of superhero movies, which was arguably inaugurated by two films: Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men and Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man.
The first X-Men film is notable for three pioneering moves. It treated characters with superpowers in a serious, internally consistent way. It established a cinematic comic-book universe that wasn’t centered on a single hero. And it emphasized the response of society, including government, to the presence of superpowered people among us.
As classic as the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies are, they play fast and loose with Superman’s powers (reversing time by spinning the Earth backwards, amnesia kisses, etc.); there is a bit of fairy tale about them. The Gotham City of the Batman franchise launched by Tim Burton and Michael Keaton never feels like a real city and isn’t meant to. Neither franchise imagines a wider world with room for more than one costumed hero in his own right (even if they did eventually make room for sidekicks Robin and Batgirl and spinoff heroine Supergirl). Nor are they much interested in the sociological implications of their premise.
X-Men, by contrast, created a world in which superpowers are a rare but regular, diverse phenomenon, with heroes, villains, and countless anonymous mutants passing as normal humans. Following the comics, with their Civil-Rights era roots, it depicted anti-mutant prejudice, government calls for registering and tracking mutants, and so forth.
Of the stream of comic-book films that followed X-Men — the Sam Raimi Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogies, Ang Lee’s Hulk, Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films, Fox’s Daredevil and Fantastic Four films — none fundamentally changed or challenged the genre as X-Men had done, until Iron Man. (Even Singer’s Superman Returns brought the spirit of the Reeve films into the modern era without doing anything revolutionary.)
A shared universe
While Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance, with his witty deadpan delivery, is a genre standout (ably abetted by Gwyneth Paltrow as down-to-earth Pepper Potts, perhaps the best love interest in any comic-book movie), nothing about Iron Man was particularly revolutionary — until the end credits rolled. That’s when Samuel L. Jackson showed up as Nick Fury, announcing that Iron Man wasn’t “the only superhero in town” and introducing “the Avengers Initiative.”
In that post-credits scene, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born: the promise of a shared universe in which a growing pantheon of marquee characters — Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and eventually Ant-Man and the Wasp, with Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and others yet to come — all coexist, starring in their own films but also making guest appearances in each other’s films, along with second-stringers like Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Falcon, and all coming together for team outings in the Avengers films.
So far the X-Men films have produced only one marquee hero, Wolverine. All the heroes and villains of the Fox franchise, moreover, are variations on a single premise: random mutation. The MCU characters have varied origins and powers: Iron Man wears high-tech armor, Hulk is a creature of science gone wrong, Thor is a godlike being from another dimension, Captain America is a scientifically enhanced super-soldier, and so on. (The only thing the MCU doesn’t have, ironically, is mutants; Fox’s X-Men franchise has exclusive dibs on that term.)
The success of Marvel’s shared universe has been phenomenal and so far unparalleled, though Warner Bros, which owns DC Comics, strove mightily to catch up in essentially one fell swoop in March with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, building on a single prior film, the Superman reboot Man of Steel, while introducing this universe’s versions of Batman and Wonder Woman and teasing Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. It didn’t work. It was too much too fast, overwhelmed by its own bleak solemnity, and woefully bereft of the MCU movies’ sense of fun.
Everything is interconnected
What makes the success of the MCU films even more remarkable is that while none of them are outright clunkers, most aren’t very good. The best of them — the first Avengers, the first Iron Man, and the quirky outlier Guardians of the Galaxy — are sparkling fun; the worst — Thor: The Dark World, The Incredible Hulk — are dull and perfunctory.
Nearly everything else is somewhere in the middle: servings of a competent, homogenized Marvel entertainment product that, like fast food, is never too different from last time, which is how fans like it. Masterminded by producer Kevin Feige, the MCU is all interconnected, which means everything is a commercial for everything else. There are no decisive beginnings or endings; the MCU franchise is to some extent all middle, the key to its popular strength and its dramatic limitations.
In particular, the MCU movies suffer from a dearth of quality villains. Only Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has so far demonstrated much durability and interest. (One-off villains include Ultron, the Red Skull, Iron Monger, Whiplash, and Malekith. Who? Exactly.)
The X-Men films generally pit the students of idealistic Charles Xavier (played at different ages by Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy) against Xavier’s old ally turned nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender) and his followers. Overall, it’s produced more consistently thoughtful and interesting fare, with only two clunkers, Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, a disappointing finale to the original X-Men trilogy, and the first solo Wolverine movie.
In the X-films’ Civil Rights schema, Xavier is a peacemaker dreaming of a day when his students might be judged not by the configuration of their genome but by the content of their character, while Magneto is the fiery separatist who has his own vision for his people that he intends to bring into existence by any means necessary. (At times the central metaphor has been given a gay-rights spin, as in X2: X-Men United when a mutant “comes out” to his parents.)
Men of iron, feet of clay
One of the key tropes of the MCU, established in the first Iron Man, is the hero’s journey as a story of redemption. Marvel’s heroes may be men of iron, but almost to a man they have feet of clay. Before they can save the world, they must first redeem themselves. (Wolverine in the X-films has a similar trajectory.)
This motif plays out with panache in Iron Man, which introduces Downey’s Tony Stark as a glib, womanizing weapons manufacturer who equably accepts the moniker “the Merchant of Death” and hawks high-tech weaponry to the military with quips like “I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”
Tony’s weapons are being diverted to international terrorists: a fact shatteringly brought home when Tony is almost killed by one of his own weapons and taken captive by terrorists. Tony winds up with a large hole in his chest, a metaphor for the hole in his soul, which is eventually occupied by his technological heart, a miniature “arc reactor” that powers his suit.
Belatedly taking responsibility for his company’s callous profiteering, Tony shuts down the weapons program, only to discover that he has been betrayed from within by an unscrupulous business partner. Tony’s redemptive trajectory continues in Iron Man 2, in which his father’s unscrupulous business dealings come back to haunt him in the form of Mickey Rourke’s intimidating Whiplash.
In Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Chris Evans’ Captain America — the only major Marvel hero who is noble and virtuous by temperament and upbringing, and doesn’t need to be redeemed — berates Tony about not being the kind of guy to sacrifice himself to save others. Cap’s Greatest-Generation ethic gets under Tony’s Me-Generation skin, prodding Tony to rise to the challenge at the climax, risking his life to save the world. The Avengers also offered redemptive arcs for its second-stringers, Black Widow and Hawkeye, who are linked by their dark pasts.
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor offered a less successful stab at the redemption motif, with a halfhearted effort at establishing the character flaws that lead to the banishment of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) followed by a lazy redemptive sacrifice.
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy put a comic spin on the formula with Chris Pratt’s space pirate Star-Lord leading a motley team that is half-redeemed at best in the end, with team members still struggling with basic moral concepts. Last year’s lighthearted Ant-Man gave us Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, a cat burglar with a conscience (and an engineering degree!) whose character never made enough sense for his redemption to be all that effective.
Wanted: More heroic heroes
None of these redemptive arcs, alas, quite makes the heroes genuinely inspiring in the end. For all the glut of comic-book movies, young viewers will find very few admirable role models among the costumed supers on the screen. Wolverine, Iron Man, and Star-Lord all do heroic things, but they aren’t habitually heroic characters.
Cap is one of the few genuinely good guys, though I’m not sure his character has been sufficiently developed to capture the imagination like the more flamboyant, flawed Iron Man. Superman has long had a similar problem vis-à-vis Batman, and Man of Steel and now Superman v Batman failed to offer an inspiring vision of the archetypal superhero. This year, of course, these heroes are battling one another, which doesn’t exactly improve matters.
Perhaps my personal hero in the endless lineup of today’s big-screen comic-book heroes is Stewart’s Professor Xavier: a savvy idealist with a meaningful vision for a better world who has dedicated his life to improving the lives of those around him. Will McAvoy’s younger iteration of the character, whose redemptive arc has yet to bring him close to Stewart’s elder statesman, get closer in X-Men: Apocalypse?
Will the MCU’s younger Spider-Man, played by 19-year-old Tom Holland and getting a solo movie next year, offer a more inspiring take on the character than the Tobey Maguire films? Can Warner’s DC movies recover from Man of Steel and produce heroes worth looking up to? These are the kinds of mutations in the genre I’d most like to see.
Note on age appropriateness: The MCU films are generally fine for teens and up; you could go younger with Captain America: The First Avenger. Some of the X-Men films, like The Wolverine, are a bit rougher.